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National Center for Education Statistics (NCES): Gathering Library Data

Our focus at The Virtual Librarian Service is the providing of management of resources and services to the solely online student, the hybrid student using the online library or the campus based student using the online library. How we describe the library in the self-study report requires many pieces of information from many organizations, but I pay attention greatly to the reporting Agencies, the USDE and the various accrediting bodies. So how the NCES gathers data and how they define things in the virtual library interests me. And sometimes before your very eyes, you can see the national trend forming or the education department reaction to changes being implemented by the education industry. Before I discus the use of the NCES academic comparative analysis tools, I am going to share what I have learned about their gathering of that data.

The NCES defines a library for their purposes with 5 criteria to be answered with either a yes or no. If you say yes to those 5 criteria you are eligible to report your library’s statistics. The NCES definition of a library is actually quite interesting since the word “library” can be used loosely depending on the corporation, institution or organization.

To be defined as a library for their purposes, the institution must - in the FY2012  - have its own library, have spent more than $10,000 that year, have the printed or other materials comprising the collection, organized and have paid, trained library staff to provide and interpret those materials. There must be established hours of operation during which those paid trained staff meet the information services needs of clientele. You must have a physical facility to support that collection, its staff and the library schedule.

For solely online universities two parts of that definition could be problematic. First is how we view the organized collection. A case can be made that a virtual library hosted behind the LMS and requiring authentication to access, could be considered organized if the library has lists of databases organized in a certain manner, working hyperlinks and policies clearly articulating who maintains the organization structure.

The second is the physical facilities. The physical facilities issue is up for interpretation, but for those of us who deliver library resources and services solely online, could those words be interpreted to mean the hosting service servers or the campus HQ? With its administration, controller, accountants and so forth HQ ensures the trained library staff are paid, provide services to the clientele and the library webpages are appropriately accessible. They just do not have a physical room where the books and journals are lent out from. That is the role of the room of host servers and routers. It is a stretch, but something to think about.

The word “paid” to staff as in “paid staff” was added in 2004 so obviously some libraries were counting free work experience students or interns as library staff. And in 2010 they set the minimum total library expenditures to be exceeding $10,000, a number that is nicely rounded and I am not sure where it came from. Gathering data for the Virtual Reference interaction was a new section added in 2010 and here we can see the effect of online distance education and virtual libraries.

So who or what are “paid trained library staff” ? They are defined as someone with a professional education (the master's degree or its equivalent) in the theoretical and scientific aspects of librarianship. And “Other professional staff” are those whose duties require education and/or training in related fields (e.g., academic disciplines, archives, media, computing).

NCES separates reference interactions and consultation interactions and they are defined by time with the client. But that measurement is a left-over from the campus based library routine and the central reference desk and does not define what transpires in the solely virtual library. Reference interactions in the online university library can not easily be separated out by how long you work with the client, so I make a case about how long it takes to gather and formulate the response(s) to the client.

You have to love working with library data and library statistics to work in this area. My next writing will be on what comparative data you can use to measure your online library resources and services. Contact me if you have any questions or want to see what you must do to measure up.

Melody Hainsworth, MLIS, Ph. D.